Weird Science [End of the World]
By Max Daniel
It’s still not quite clear why I find the Museum of Jurassic Technology so appealing. Perhaps it’s the portrait gallery of the Soviet space dogs, or that its bookstore sells volumes by Charles Darwin, Bruno Schulz, Hellen Keller, and 1st century Roman philosophers. Yet despite the countless oddities and forgotten metaphysical theories that are featured throughout the labyrinthine museum, what challenges me the most – and what attracts me the most – is a fundamental and encompassing commitment to the fantastic and absurd.
Located in the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood of Culver City, the museum considers itself an “educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” While it remains to be seen what, exactly, in the museum relates to a certain geologic era, the organization can trace its history to the display of religious relics, like the bones of saints (of dubious origins), in medieval churches . Roots are also found in “cabinets of curiosities,” 16th and 17th century European precursors to the modern museum, and often described as “microcosms of the world” and as “memory theaters.” Compared to contemporary and modern museums, the Museum of Jurassic Technology stands out a bizarre collection of art, natural history, and pseudoscientific treatises. While most of the contents of this institution would not be seen as appropriate among the “canonical” elements traditionally included in more established museums, I left the Museum comforted in knowing that these “apocryphal” exhibits have a home.
The contrast between the bright California sun outside and the museum’s dimly lit interior is like an apt analogy for the museum’s focus on “the dark side” of the mundane. On a recent visit, two of the most intriguing, expansive, and confusing exhibits presented the fantastic scientific theories of individuals, purporting to explain the inner workings of natural phenomena like magnetism and memory.
One exhibit focuses on the works of Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit scholar whose scientific pursuits included and combined the vastly differing spheres of magnetism, mirrors, and Egyptology, among others. In perhaps the only appropriate way to feature Kircher’s works, the museum accompanies his story with a dubbed-over German, 3-D documentary on his life, a bell wheel (a small water wheel with bells attached to each spoke), and biblical dioramas. When the dioramas are viewed from the correct angle, a series of small mirrors project images of Mary, Jesus, or the burning bush onto the scenes, tying Kircher’s interests in biblical studies and the science of mirrors to the museum’s interests in the eccentric and bizarre. For someone whose theories and academic pursuits seem pulled directly from a Borgesian landscape, the only approach I could see fit to explain Kircher’s absurd and convoluted unclassifiable science is to use equally wild and ludicrous artifacts and showpieces. Although Kircher presents a fascinating story, what grabbed the most was the impeccably adept way the Museum chose to represent his profound eccentricity. While a traditional exhibit may have approached Kircher’s life with manuscripts, photographs, and a simplified documentary, I doubt these would have made me feel the strange, vast wonder that I imagine Kircher to have also felt.
A similar exhibit focuses on Geoffrey Sonnabend, an American theoretician, and features his theories of memory as a human construction built in order to “buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events.” To expound upon Sonnabend’s theories, the museum provides extensive listening stations, which were either broken or inaudible when I visited, and a mini-documentary, that while not 3-D, was being shown simultaneously on nine television sets. Along with Kircher, the dynamic and vast array of exhibits used to explain these theories failed to elucidate their complex and quasi-mystical theories, though I hardly believe this to be the fault of the curators, whose choice of explanatory methods contribute to understanding the feel of an underground scientific community. Likely a product of the combination of my dumbfounded stupor and the Museum’s encouragement of rampant imagination, I like to think that the faded photographs, illegible text, and white noise in the Sonnabend exhibit was an intentional effort at illuminating his theories of memory decay. Or maybe it’s just me. While I had trouble grasping the details, it proved inconsequential as I was nevertheless overwhelmed with wonder, amazement, and a barrage of philosophical and scientific questions – all of which capture the essence of the museum’s raison d’être and commitment to cosmic sense of humor.
Like the Kircher and Sonnabend exhibits, the others that fill the dark and narrow halls of the Museum of Jurassic Technology are simultaneously incredulous and magnificent, providing more questions than answers. Some exhibits are more artistic, like “Rotten Luck,” which features pairs of six-sided die at different stages of decay, or “The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaljian,” which features miniscule sculptures of figures like Pope John Paul II or Goofy, formed from a human hair and placed in the eye of a needle. Another, “Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition,” which sounds more complicated than it is, is a collection of pre-scientific and folk medicines and cures that could pass as legitimate anthropology. Others, like “The Lives of Perfect Creatures,” which consists of oil portraits of the space-bound canines of the USSR, and “The Garden of Eden on Wheels,” a collection of dioramas depicting Los Angeles area trailer parks, are merely comical. The fantastic thing about the Museum of Jurassic Technology is that the institution itself is the key exhibit, a modern iteration of the 17th century “cabinet of wonders.” Alone, each exhibit could easily and understandably be dismissed as preposterous and unfounded science, but together, they’ve been arranged in an enormously engaging intellectual freak-show.
Towards the end of my visit, as I snacked on Russian cookies in the museum’s reconstruction of Czar Nicholas II’s study in his St. Petersburg palace, I tried to arrange all the loose thoughts and questions the exhibits raised. I came to realize, despite my difficulty in grasping the facts of any of the individual exhibits, how incredibly fascinating the museum is, and how terse explanation is not always the most effective route to understanding something. Whereas grander museums like the Met or Smithsonian aim to educate, acculturate, and entertain its visitors, the modest Museum of Jurassic Technology, located among strip malls and Whole Foods, aims to challenge, question, and confuse its visitors more effectively than any educational institution I know of.
MAX DANIEL is a sophomore in the General Studies/JTS joint program and a contributing editor for The Current. He can be reached at [email protected]